As Christians, we believe we are saved solely by the grace of God. God sets us apart for salvation based not on anything we could do (or have done), but based instead on the free gift of salvation offered by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Our works play no role in our salvation. We cannot earn our way into Heaven, this is a gift of God, so no man or woman could ever boast they earned a place in Heaven with God:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
But there are a number of non-Christian theists who believe salvation comes as the result of human effort in combination with the work of God (Jewish believers or Mormons for example). My Mormon friends sometimes complain orthodox Christianity ignores the behavior of believers altogether. After all, do we actually think that all believers are acceptable to God no matter what they do or how they behave? If someone simply says they believe and then lives a life exhibiting little or no evidence of their belief will they still go into Heaven? Isn’t the Mormon notion of levels of Heaven a more equitable and fair position on the nature of the afterlife?
The beliefs of Christians are often mischaracterized. While we, as Christians, don’t believe our works have anything to do with our entry to heaven, we do understand our works have everything to do with our reward once we get there. This is clear from the Biblical record of Scripture. The Apostle John reminds us of the importance of “works” while we are here on Earth:
“We must work the works of Him who sent Me, as long as it is day; night is coming, when no man can work.”
So, why is it so important for us to “work”? Is it so that we can earn our Salvation? No, the passage we just read in Ephesians makes it clear our Salvation is not the product of our work. The issue here is not Salvation; it is reward. Christian orthodoxy describes Heaven sees as a place where rewards are distributed to the saints in accordance with the nature of their lives on earth.
To be fair, not everyone in Christendom agrees with this idea. Some would argue all heavenly reward is measured out equally to those who are saved. So let’s examine both cases and see if we can determine the truth from a Biblical Perspective:
The Case for Equal Reward in Heaven
Every faithful follower of Jesus Christ will receive the best gift of all; eternal life. The question is only whether or not there is an additional reward waiting for some of us. Those who say God rewards every saved Christian equally will sometimes point to a specific parable of Jesus to make their case:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
At first glance, it appears from the parable everyone who gets into heaven is given an equal reward, independent of their work here on earth. After all, these workers enter at different times and appear to perform different amounts of work, yet they all get the same payment. Does this mean regardless of what we do here on earth, the reward will be the same for all of us? Or is it possible this parable is really trying to make an entirely different point?
Remember this passage of scripture comes right after a discussion Jesus had with a Gentile ruler (the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ encounter). Here Jesus told a Gentile what was required for him to enter the Kingdom, and He did it right in front of all of his Jewish disciples. After talking to this Gentile, Peter asked Jesus if the disciples themselves had done enough to enter the Kingdom, and importantly, Peter asked, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19: 27). Jesus assured Peter the Jewish disciples would have authority in the Kingdom, but also told Peter many others who come to the truth late would also be in the Kingdom:
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”
This last statement is important. Jesus told the disciples some who come late would also be in the Kingdom. Who were these late comers? The parable of the vineyard workers answered this question. When read in the context of Matthew Chapter 19, it’s easy to see the parable of the vineyard is about the Salvation of the Gentiles. The parable is designed to illustrate the fact the Gentiles (who actually heard the Gospel and entered the Kingdom very late compared to the Jews who possessed the scripture all along), would also enjoy the same privileges and rights as the Jews who were chosen and favored.
This parable does not teach all reward in heaven will be the same. In fact, if you read the parable in the context of Matthew Chapter 19, you can easily see all reward in Heaven will not be the same. After all, in Matthew 19:28-29, Jesus clearly told his disciples they will have a greater reward than those in Heaven over whom they will judge:
“Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”
The Case For Unequal Reward in Heaven
There are many good Biblical reasons to believe there are different levels of reward in Heaven. Orthodox Christianity teaches faith alone saves us. But Christianity also teaches our salvation is not the same as our reward. We serve an equitable and fair King, who loves us and is also just and holy. Grace alone brings us into the kingdom. Nothing we can do on our own can ever earn this for us (Ephesians 2:8-9). In this sense, the gift of “eternal life” is given to all believers equally based on their faith alone. But there is plenty of Scripture suggesting a reward (beyond our Salvation) awaits us in Heaven, and this reward will be distributed to us on the basis of our obedience and love for God demonstrated in this mortal life:
Jesus Said There Are Degrees of Joy in Heaven
The first thing you notice when examining the Biblical passages describing Heaven is the fact there are differing degrees of joy experienced in the next life:
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
From this passage, it’s clear it’s possible for us to have more joy (meaning of course, it must be possible for us to less joy as well). If this is true, and our experience of joy can be thought of as a reward, then there are differing degrees of reward in Heaven.
Jesus Said There Are Rewards in Heaven
Jesus specifically told us Heaven is a place where rewards will be given to the saved. Look at Jesus’ words from the most important sermon He ever gave (the Sermon on the Mount):
“Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
“And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal…”
From this one sermon it is clear there are a “rewards in heaven” waiting for each of us who have been saved. There are “treasures in heaven” for each of us. God has rewards waiting for us, and much of this sermon from Jesus is an admonition for us not to forsake our heavenly rewards by seeking worldly rewards and acknowledgment.
Jesus Also Said There Are Degrees of Reward in Heaven
Jesus told his followers each of them would receive a reward in heaven based on what they did here on earth:
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds.
This statement is so clear and direct it can hardly be argued. Jesus promises to “repay each person according to what he has done” (ESV). If Jesus is not telling us God dispenses fair and just rewards (and punishments) in the next life, what in the world does this passage mean? To further illustrate the point, Jesus used a famous parable to illustrate this for his followers:
For it (the kingdom of heaven) is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves, and entrusted his possessions to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. But he who received the one talent went away and dug in the ground, and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. And the one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me; see, I have gained five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.’ The one also who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted to me two talents; see, I have gained two more talents.’ “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground; see, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”
Jesus clearly told his followers the Kingdom of Heaven would be a place where individual saved believers will be rewarded according to their deeds. If you do a lot with what God has given you; you will get a greater reward in Heaven. If you squander what God has given you; don’t be surprised to find that your reward is much less.
Paul Agrees That There Are Degrees of Reward
Paul seems to understand this as well. When writing to the believers in Rome, he uses language that is very similar to the language used by Jesus:
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds…
Since we know God does not render salvation according to our deeds, what is it that he is rendering? He is rendering reward according to our deeds. This means as our deeds increase, our reward increases as well. Look at what Paul writes to the Corinthians. He clearly tells them their Salvation is built on Christ alone, but in addition to this, each of us, as saved Christians, also builds on this foundation of Salvation resulting in our reward in Heaven:
1 Corinthians 3:11-15
For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
Paul clearly tells us rewards are waiting for us as saved Christians. But he is also clear about the fact some of us will receive more rewards than others. Some will produce enduring work here on earth and persevere. As a result we will obtain an enduring reward in Heaven. Others will not produce enduring work here on earth, and while we will still be saved, our reward in heaven will be nothing more than our Salvation (“he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire”).
Solomon Agrees That There Are Degrees of Reward
God has always maintained there are varying degrees of reward in Heaven. Even the Old Testament speaks of this truth. Look at what Solomon said:
If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?
Jesus, Paul and Solomon are simply reflecting the heart of God when they tell us we will be saved by His work and rewarded by our work.
What Actually Earns Us A Reward?
The question you might have, as you read through the reality we will all be rewarded differently in Heaven, is simply: “What is it that will earn us a reward?” The Scriptures are pretty clear about this as well. Let’s begin in the Old Testament and read from the Book of Daniel:
“And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
In describing the heavenly order of things, Daniel says “those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” Did you notice Daniel uses the word “many” when describing the number of people we might lead to righteousness? By using the word, “many”, Daniel is making a comparison to the possibility of leading “few” to righteousness. This comparison tells us something about how we can earn a reward. Some of us will “shine brighter” in heaven for having brought more “to righteousness”. It appears our effort to bring people to the truth about God and tell them about His free gift of Salvation is rewarded by God in the next life.
Paul understood this. When writing to the Thessalonians, he said he expected to have great joy and a “crown of exultation” in Heaven. He expected heavenly reward. But he made it clear to the Thessalonians they were the reason why he expected this reward:
1 Thessalonians 2:19-20
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.
Paul knew his work here on earth was important because it produced believers who would then someday join him in Heaven. Paul understood what Daniel taught hundreds of years before: the more people you bring to Heaven, the greater your reward in Heaven will be.
What Will This Reward Be?
The last question you might be asking is, “What form will this reward take?” Keep in mind we are already acknowledging Salvation comes freely from God. We are talking about the reward earned by those who are already saved freely by God. What kind of reward might we receive based on our work here on earth? This is actually a very tough question to answer, as the Bible does not give us the clarity we might like on this issue. But there are several clues we can work from. First, let’s remember that joy is a reward, and the Bible tells us there are degrees of joy in the next life. So we know whatever it is that God gives us, it will be something resulting in great joy. Maybe it will be different for each of us, who knows? But there is a reason to believe God has a particular way of rewarding his beloved.
It appears God enjoys rewarding his Children with increased and valuable roles of responsibility. Look at the Apostles, for example. Jesus told them they would be rewarded with roles as the “judges” over the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus told them their reward would be increased and more powerful responsibilities. This is consistent with the parable we’ve already looked at from Matthew 25:14-30. In the parable, Jesus affirmed the rest of us will also earn greater responsibilities as the result of our efforts here on earth (“I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master”)
Sometimes we see responsibility here on earth as a burden, but in Heaven, when we are reunited with the God who gave us every talent we possess, His reward will be responsibilities maximizing our talents in such a way as to produce great joy. We will have a complete sense of our own significance and role in Heaven. Joy will be ours.
Once God has given you the free gift of Salvation, once you have truly received Jesus as your Savior, the issue of your Salvation is no longer in question. But reward is another issue altogether. While your Salvation cannot be lost, because it is not earned, your reward can, in fact, be forfeited:
2 John 4-10
I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father. And now I ask you, lady, not as writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.
John does not want anyone of us to lose our “full reward”. He doesn’t want us to get to Heaven and receive only a piece of what could have been ours. He wants us to get all the reward God wants us to have, and it appears that we could, in fact, lose a portion of our reward if we begin to neglect the truth. We can forfeit a portion of our reward if we stray from the life God has called us to. When we no longer love others enough to share the truth, stand up for those in need and comfort those who are hurting in an effort to demonstrate the love and nature and salvation of God, we risk losing our reward. God promises us Salvation as a free gift, but he clearly calls us to live a life He can bless, both here on earth and in the life to come.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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